Monday, 25 March 2019

Quote of the day - why the EU should be razed to the ground and the earth beneath salted

From Pete North...
"If you want to live in a top down technocracy where politics is reduced to consultative exercises for show, so that we are all free to live obedient little lives with professional politicians closing down ever more freedoms, then the EU is a nice and easy off the shelf answer."
This is the sum of it all really. I commented on a little online video of (mostly) young people marching in Germany over the proposed new EU copyright rules - an example of powerful business and media interests essentially buying protection from emerging forms of communication online.

I appreciate too that our Westminster government is little better and that the manner in which they have emasculated local government leaves it as essentially the agent of central government fiat.

Getting Brexit should be the opportunity to reassert popular control over government - as I wrote at the new year:
So when we leave the EU that should just be the start. The other shibboleths of our state need democratising too - from the House of Lords and the judiciary through the NHS, police and civil service, to the legion of unaccountable local council chief executives, social services directors and planning managers. If you are looking for a 2019 project, this should be that project - Brexit ought to be the launch pad for a renewed democracy. I fear the great and good - those with most to lose from more democracy and more accountability - will do their utmost do make Brexit into a vehicle for less democracy: they should be stopped.
I remain optimistic.


Demanding ID at polling stations solves a problem that doesn't exist...

"It's about fraud", they cry!! Yet it turns out there isn't any fraud - or at least not the sort of fraud that gets sorted by demanding little old ladies in rural Wiltshire provide ID in order to vote:
Figures from the Electoral Commission show personation fraud at the polling station accounted for eight out of the 266 allegations made last year. No further action was taken for seven of these, and one allegation was resolved locally.
So last year there were precisely zero actual cases of personation fraud - the only sort of fraud that demanding ID solves. If you want to get serious about abuse of elections then you ned to look at:

1. Voter intimidation especially intimidation of women

2. Postal vote farming made possible by automatic rights to a PV

3. Abuse of political selection processes (in all the main parties)

4. Treating and, let's call it, "extreme creativity" around election expenses

One previously huge abuse - false registration - has largely been dealt with through individual registration rules.

None of this is to say that personation doesn't take place (people with experience of campaigning in places like Bradford or Tower Hamlets will tell you it is commonplace - albeit that the evidence for this is more limited). It remains the case that intimidation, treating and postal vote abuse are far more of a problem. The last is easy to deal with - we just return to a system similar to Blair's reforms - but the wide problem of how people campaign is much more difficult to respond to, which is probably why the simple "show ID" proposal - 'look we're doing something' - was taken.


Saturday, 23 March 2019

Should public housing and regeneration funding be linked to increasing housing land allocations?

Scott Beyer toured America looking at the development and growth of some 30 cities. Beyer has a lot to say (I'm not sold on his enthusiasm for density but his market urbanism approach is mostly great) and one suggestion is that housing subsidy should be target:
But those subsidies ought to be directed into the dynamic elastic metros. That is where land is cheaper, approvals faster and labor cheaper, because construction workers haven’t been driven away by high home costs. And unlike stagnant inelastic metros, this area of the country is also where jobs are always available. This means that the housing subsidies not only stretch further, but place people in markets where they can actually be self-sustaining.
This runs counter to government instincts which are to target subsidy to the greatest need. The problem here is that the greatest need is often a creation of the urban containment policies used by those cities Beyer calls 'dynamic inelastic metros'. In the UK this would cover London but also other places in the South such as Brighton, Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge. Indeed, because England has a nationally-directed system of planning, there are very few places (Milton Keynes, Medway, Thurrock) that come anywhere close to the 'dynamic elastic' ideal in Beyers' review.

Imagine, however, that there were billions in housing funding - to provide new affordable homes, respond to homelessness, and support relocation - but that this funding was predicated on the local authorities providing significant increases in land for housing? This would present councils with an interesting choice - take national funding for new homes or continue to side with NIMBYs in preventing development. You could take this still further by linking non-housing subsidy and grants to the same metric - you zone for more homes and we'll give to the economic development funding to go with those new homes.

If we want to break the NIMBY hold on development - where an ugly redundant airfield is precious green belt - then we need to give local authorities a real incentive to do this. Making economic development, housing and infrastructure funding contingent on releasing more housing land might just be the trigger needed.


Friday, 22 March 2019

Rutger Bregman - poster boy for ungrateful spoiled brats everywhere!

Last night a Dutch academic with a book to sell was given a prime slot on a late night politics show, 'This Week'. I gather that the academic in question, Rutger Bregman, was also something of a hit at the annual elitist gathering in Davos. He has, so he tells us, exciting ideas and therefore we "have to agree with him" (pretty much how he started every answer). It turns out that those exciting ideas are:

1. Universal Basic Income

2. Higher taxes

3. Being rude about old people

So we have two ideas that are hardly new - Thomas More's Utopia contained proposals for a universal income and more taxes has been the lazy persons answer to every political problem at least since King John.

The only new idea that Dr Bregman has, therefore, is being rude to old people. And the good doctor demonstrated this during the programme by blaming "your generation" (he was speaking to three older men) for all the ills of the world. It wasn't a great way to win friends or have a substantive discussion of the ideas in the book Dr Bregman wants to flog. And, having had a tough time of it on the show (mostly by being unable to answer simple questions and then being rude), Dr Bregman took to Twitter in a fit of desperate post hoc rationalisation for his flop.

Dr Bregman starts by doubling down on being rude:
"A bit more background on how incredibly stupid the show really is..."
Then moves on to attack the panel:
"...three right-wing dinosaurs - two of them politicians from the Stone Age - start teaming up on you."
Apparently their fault was not to have read Dr Bregman's book (which presumably contains the answers he was unable to give to the simple questions asked by those 'right-wing dinosaurs').

Dr Bregman represents a trend for millennials (or whatever you call people in their 30s these days) to absolve themselves of any responsibility for any problems in their lives, the world and, even, the future by blaming the older generation. Alongside this is a related trend for the same people to blame someone or something else for all their problems - usually a large anonymous thing like 'Big Oil' or 'the rich'.

You're worried about climate change? All down to the "fossil fuels companies" nothing to do with those thirtysomethings wanting convenient supermarkets, nice warm homes, a car, air travel and all the other things that bless their lives but are only made possible by the use of fossil fuels.

You're fat? Not down to eating too much and exercising too little - it's the 'obesogenic environment' mate, nothing we can do about it, look at big food, advertising, fast food restaurants. How can I not be fat?

The same goes for drinking, smoking, betting and a host of other things that people do because they give pleasure - for the Dr Bregman's of this world we are like zombies animated by advertising not humans with agency.

The big problem though, according to Dr Bregman, is old people. And there are plenty of others who share this view - how dare 60 year old baby boomers do this (not entirely clear what we've done by the way but words like 'austerity', 'climate' and 'brexit' crop up a lot). I can lift the gist of this from another Tweet - not from Dr Bregman but it could be:
I’m sick of the boomers, they’ve been one long, self-indulgent midlife crisis.
This rather sums up a particular outlook - millennials of this sort simply deny any responsibility for their own lives, preferring instead to mither about how hard it is for them and how selfish old people are for making this so (they even have a spectacularly 'glass half empty' think tank in the Resolution Foundation to roll out endless graphs confirming just how bad it is for middle class thirty-somethings in good jobs). This is why ideas like universal basic income appeal to these spoiled thirty-somethings - what's not to like about getting money for doing nothing. And it's why they propose high taxes on, I assume, old rich people to pay for it all (plus saving the planet and ending austerity, of course). Someone else's problem, someone else's fault.

What we have is a generation - one that will dominate politics and culture for the next twenty years - that doesn't believe in personal reponsibility, hates capitalism (except when it's their web design business, of course) and, despite growing up in a vastly better world than their parents, believe that the baby boomers' great binge has denied them the chance for a good life.

My generation will bequeath a world that is healthier, wealthier, more fun, safer, cleaner, greener and happier than the one we grew up in. And all millennials like Dr Bregman can do is moan about it while taking full advantage of all the things that the creativity of those rich old people gave them, from central heating and reliable transport through to smart phones and affordable foreign holidays. Ungrateful spoiled brats!


Tuesday, 19 March 2019

That's all folks (my last speech to Bradford Council)

Strictly not my last as I used my right to reply to thank the hundreds of Council officers who helped make my job as a councillor possible - but here's the prepared speech.

"On my bedside table there’s a copy of The Little World of Don Camillo, Giovanni Guereschi’s whimsical evocation of life in a little Italian town back in the 1940s. More than any other book, this one has shaped how I think about politics. Let me share a bit from its opening:
…I want you to understand that, in the Little World between the river and the mountains, many things can happen that cannot happen anywhere else. Here, the deep, eternal breathing of the river freshens the air, for both the living and the dead, and even the dogs have souls. If you keep this in mind, you will easily come to know the village priest, Don Camillo, and his adversary, Peppone, the Communist Mayor. You will not be surprised that Christ watches the goings on…and that one man beats the other over the head, but fairly – that is without hatred – and that in the end the two enemies find they agree about essentials.
Those ‘essentials’ are in the simplest terms community, neighbourhood and pride in the place we live.

In this grand room we talk about Bradford in sweeping terms but outside, our attention is, as us pompous urbanists put it, more granular. Most of our work as councillors – and probably the thing that gives us most pleasure – is done in the communities we represent.

I was sat on top of Denholme Edge the other day eating a ham and tomato sandwich, admiring the view. Much of what I see from there is Bingley Rural. And it is beautiful.

Anyway I was sat there and I got to thinking. Each way I looked, into every nook of the places in that view there was a story – something that had been done to make the place a little better. Some of those stories were about stopping something – the ten year campaign, ending in the High Court, to stop a landfill blighting Denholme – but most were about improvement, little acts of betterment. A new kids playground, some traffic lights, a crossing – small things that matter to people far more than the big things we usually talk about in these Council meetings.

Bradford is a place of a thousand little worlds, each one different and each one precious to the people who live it them. It is those little worlds that my motion is about. First that we should celebrate the ordinary folk who, every day, do something to make those places better or the people in them stronger. And second that, even in these financially constrained times, us councillors – individually and collectively – can do something to help those good people with their betterment.

The idea for a loan product starts with a meeting I had with the then Corporate Services Director, Stuart McKinnon-Evans. I happened to mention the efforts to raise the cash to build a new village hall in Cullingworth and that they were looking at a soft loan from Unity Bank or Charity Bank. Stuart’s response was “why not ask the Council?”.

We did, and tomorrow £50,000 will be loaned to the hall by the Council – the final bit of funding for a £900,000 project.

The new hall is built and, with a fair wind, will open after Easter this year – nearly six years after former Heaton councillor, Bryan Hobson – then chair of the hall committee – announced the need for a new hall because the old one, a 50 year old wooden hut, was falling down.

My motion simply asks officers to look into how we might make this approach more widely available – Cullingworth was lucky because I was leader of the Conservative Group and sat in a meeting with the Council’s most senior finance officer.

There is a lot of criticism – not always justified – directed at the council for giving too much attention to the city centre. This motion, at pretty much zero cost to the council, allows us to provide another way to support local communities – those little worlds we each represent - do those little acts of betterment.

If you want to be flash, you could call it social venture capital – investing in social enterprises like community centres, sports clubs and pre-schools. Add to this the consideration of planning gain, some advice and support around planning and licensing, and we have a little package that can perhaps get a few more local initiatives out of the ground.

It’s not a panacea and can’t replace the loss of grant funding or the reduction in neighbourhood support or community development but it would help and, I feel, show that the Council is thinking about those thousands of little worlds than make up our city as well as the grand projects that might make the centre of that city great again.

Lord Mayor, I’ve sat through – and made the occasional contribution to – over 200 council meetings. A lot of what we do features much sound and fury but little real purpose beyond political campaigning. But in and amongst this are little ideas – often quiet – that we soon forget about but which make a real difference to some of those little worlds.

In the end we’re not measured by the titles we had, the power we wielded or the things we said, we’re tested on whether we did good and if, at the end of our time, we made the places we represent just a little bit better.

In Rudyard Kipling’s paean to his home county of Sussex he starts like this:
God gave all men all earth to love
But, since our hearts are small
Ordained for each one spot should prove
Beloved over all…
We are vessels for the love that people have for their communities, their neighbourhoods – you all know this – and I hope that, in our small way, we can help those people make their little worlds just that little better."


Sunday, 17 March 2019

Are there too many posh people in politics? And, if so, what should we do about it?

Chris Dillow, in a slightly chip-on-his-shoulder manner, writes how "posh people" should be disqualified from politics. Chris cites lack of hustle, overconfidence, a casual attitude to money and the lack of a "gut understanding" of how other people live. There's nothing new about the analysis presented - people who've had a struggle to escape from poverty very often resent the effortlessness with which posh people slide into grand roles.

There are, however, some thoughts arising from this that strike me as important:

1. By creating two categories, rich and poor, Chris ignores the reality which is that most people are neither. An interesting experiment here would be to contrast the manner in which 'middle class' is understood in the USA and the way in which 'middle class' is presented very often in the UK. I'm middle class (my Dad was an insurance clerk in the City for all his working life) but my experience bears little or no resemblance to the typical middle class life described in the Sunday supplements with its foreign holidays, private schools, nannies and endless dinner party angst.

2. Empathy is really important in politics - perhaps as important as what we could call "lived experience". One of the features of modern political discourse, with its emphasis on economics and obsession with evidence, is that it loses feeling. Everything is boiled down to a narrow utilitarian analysis with no room for "gut understanding". People parade class credentials (or attack others for their excess of privilege) without appreciating that this is simply adopting a badge not being empathetic, let alone understanding, of other people's lives. I may be the grandson of a miner but that doesn't make me working class - just a little bit closer to understanding that class than someone who is the grandson of an earl.

3. Policy-making is dominated by the well-off. Chris points to some very privileged people - Jacob Ree-Mogg, David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray - to make his point about how posh folk are a problem. But there's a much bigger group of people, not all the product of elite private schools, but still unquestionably wealthy and privileged. The influence of these people (they litter the media, civil service, think tanks and charity administration as well as politics) leads to tin-eared policy-making such as the persistent attacks on working- and lower middle-class lifestyle choices.

4. Generally-speaking the private sector is far more egalitarian than the public sector. I recall the then chief executive of Reed Elsevier telling a tale of how, for the annual report, his PR team were very proudly saying "all our senior management are graduates" - he had to point out to them this wasn't true as he wasn't a graduate. Employment in the city has always been a strange mish-mash between barrow boys and public school grandees (not least because trading requires that ability to hustle, negotiate or strategise that Chris points out is often missing in posh folk).

5. There are too few what I would call "ordinary people" in politics these days. From 1965 to 2005 the Conservative Party was led by people from ordinary backgrounds (Heath, Thatcher, Major, Hague, Duncan Smith, Howard) - all bar one from what us Londoners call the 'provinces'. That politics is now - in every part of its spectrum - completely dominated by folk from less ordinary backgrounds is a failing in what should be an egalitarian pastime.

We give a great deal of attention (rightly in the main) to getting better representation from women and ethnic minorities but much less attention to whether the interests and outlook of the people we chose, gender and race aside, reflect the interests and outlook of most people, especially outside London and the Home Counties. Indeed, there's a tendency to look down the nose as MPs like Phil Davies ("he used to work in ASDA, you know") or Ben Bradley ("shelf stacker in Lidl") rather than see this experience as providing a fighting chance of actually understanding what it's like for the customers and employees of value supermarkets.

I don't think the posh should be disqualified from politics, people like Tony Benn and Willie Whitelaw made major contributions to politics, but I do consider that Chris Dillow has a point - political parties need to think harder how they can get people who better represent the electorate. I think the Conservative Party has done some good work here but it is still the case that the centralised candidate approval system makes it too easy for London-based people with good connections to get approved and onto shortlists for winnable seats.

Perhaps we need also to look at non-graduate routes into professions - my uncle was a county court judge when he died but started his career as a 14-year old post boy in a solicitors' office (another uncle started at Barclay's as a sixteen-year old and finished as a senior tax accountant at the bank). These days too many jobs are closed off to non-graduates - the latest here is nursing which has gone the route of social work and policing in this regard - which makes it pretty tough for the 50% of kids who don't go to university.

Lastly, we need to ask whether the domination of London and the process of sortition by wealth (largely driven by housing costs) contributes to the manner in which well-off people simply don't have a clue about the real lives of most ordinary people - not just the poor but millions of people who are what the Americans would call 'middle class'.


Saturday, 16 March 2019

Today's eternal truth - free markets reduce inequality

This can't be said too often - but too many folk from left, right and centre seem incapable of grasping the cause of inequality:
But extreme inequality is in fact caused by insufficient competition. Given that competition is the lifeblood of capitalism, it follows that inequality is the result, not of capitalism, but of a lack of capitalism.
This is why we need free markets (and why equal societies like Denmark and Sweden have them) - not so evil business people can make bigger profits but because they lead to fairer societies. Big business - you only have to look at the CBI's enthusiasm for mercantilist, protectionist policies - loves the sort of back-slapping, lobby-dominated, regulation-heavy arrangements that the US federal government and the EU are so keen on.